The other day while walking my chocolate lab Maggie, I found that she did not ‘heel’ in the proper ‘her nose to my knee’ position. In all fairness she hadn’t walked with me in a while and I hadn’t asked this level of attention from her in weeks.  So I restated the command of “heel,” however she still lagged behind.

“Heel,” I commanded again.    I looked back at her and started to slow my stride while I repeated the command.  She looked up at me with those sweet puppy dog eyes, but she plodded along at her same flagging pace.  And then awareness hit me.  I picked up my pace to a light jog, repeated the command, and she happily fell in to line – her nose to my knee – and kept up with me.  When I stopped, she stopped.  I changed my pace a few more times as we moved ahead and she kept up with me.

Then it really hit me – how much teaching is like dog training.  Sorry, but it is.  When I first went to puppy classes, the instructor reminded me that it isn’t really the dog that needs the training. It is the owner.  We call it dog training in our ignorance and arrogance, but really our dogs (and our students) train us.  To slow down, to let them sit in ways and places they ought not to, to eat with selfish abandon.  You know.  You’ve seen it from your students and your dogs.

So, I made the case in faculty meeting yesterday that teachers should keep in mind the cautionary tale of Maggie:  Beware our tendency to slow down when our students begin to flag and falter.

However, when dealing with students the cure for slowing down isn’t always speeding up.  In Maggie’s case, she is a dog and it is in her nature to run, so speed is the motivator.  In addition, I supported and reinforced Maggie’s compliance with lots of reminders (“heel”) and praise (“good dog”). 

But what is in our students’ nature?  What does “speeding up” mean?  What support structures and reinforcements make a difference?  Well, these are the big questions of teaching aren’t they?